John McCollum (1953-2022)

Photo by Shoshanna McCollum.

John Robert McCollum was more than just a friendly and familiar face on the walks of Ocean Beach. He was a quiet hero, a lover of nature and all its creatures, a gentle giant of a man who spread love and positivity from Kismet to the sands of eastern Fire Island.

John died at Good Samaritan Hospital on March 31 after a four-year battle with prostate cancer. He is survived by his wife of 22 years and editor of Fire Island News Shoshanna McCollum.

John was a friend to many, including this writer. A wearer of many hats in our community, he maintained the grounds at the Free Union Church where I am a trustee and we would often have deep discussions over the deck railing as he leaned on his lawnmower. He enjoyed spending time in quiet contemplation in the church’s pews on Saturday afternoons rather than getting involved in the bustle of Sunday services.

Although he seemed to favor all things quiet and peaceful, he could often be found participating in staff dart tournaments and mingling downtown with his wide circle of friends, many of whom knew him as John Jay. It was rare to see him without his trademark tie-dyed bandana holding back his flowing locks.

Over the years, he and I spoke about his childhood growing up as a hearing child of deaf parents, the late Robert and Virginia McCollum, and how that experience had helped shape his character. He shared memories of arriving on Fire Island in the summer of 1976, and of the many characters and creatures he had encountered.

His eyes always shone brightest, though, when he spoke about his bride Shoshanna. She came to Fire Island as Shoshanna Cohen to work as a curator at the Ocean Beach Historical Society in the mid-1990s. Their love blossomed, and they wed at the bayside garden patio of Houser’s Bar in 1999 and made their home together in Ocean Beach.

Perhaps no one I know appreciated and advocated for God’s creation to such an extent as John. His love for cats, deer, and other animals on our walks and dunes led him to establish the Fire Island Animal Welfare Society. Formation of the non-profit allowed him and his team to more effectively raise funds to provide care and feeding for the local cat population, as well as medical care for wildlife of all kinds.

“My fondest memories were our annual fundraiser,” said Ilene Barkin Patrick, vice-president of the Fire Island Animal Welfare Society. “Shoshanna and I would man the entrance and John Jay would work the room with his gentle demeanor. The turnout from the community was a testament to how much he was loved.”

Filmmaker Evan Lauri produced a 2018 documentary about John’s volunteer work, titled “Cat Man of Ocean Beach,” which premiered at the Free Union Church.

John also dedicated his life to serving the human members of his community as a member of the Ocean Beach Fire Department for 35 years, and as a member of the department’s emergency medical team since its inception. He also worked for the Fire Island School District in various capacities and served as bus driver in addition to maintaining the grounds of several municipal properties.

Mayor James Mallott presented John with citations recounting his decades of community service from both the Town of Islip and Village of Ocean Beach at a funeral service held on John’s birthday, April 7. Ocean Beach Fire Department Chief Ian Levine presided over a bell-ringing ceremony at the service and attended along with many members of the department. A religious service was conducted by this writer on behalf of the Free Union Church.

“John was such a wonderful, loving, responsible human being,” remembered friend Judy Gerardi of Ocean Beach. “I’m glad to have known him. He surely left his mark here on earth.”

“His love for the cats and all animals of Fire Island was an example of his kindness and compassionate soul,” added Matthew Morano. “I have been blessed to have known him since I was a little kid. I will always cherish the stories and insightful wisdom he shared with me throughout my life.”